Tribal economy still developing 

Questions last week about the effectiveness of Montana’s State-Tribal Economic Development Commission threatened a proposal to extend the life of the panel and give it more money.

Rep. Carol Juneau’s House Bill 18 would add a member of Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s economic team to the commission, extend its tenure to 2009 and appropriate another $200,000 for projects.

The commission was established in 1999 to help the state’s seven Indian reservations create jobs and build commerce. But it has consistently had troubles with member attendance, staff retention and making demonstrable headway.

At a House State Administration Committee hearing in Helena, several lawmakers wondered if the commission should be abolished.

“If this is so important, why aren’t we getting more tribal representatives at the meetings?” asked Rep. Bruce Malcolm, R-Emigrant.

Andy Poole, a Department of Commerce administrator who sits on the panel, assured lawmakers that things are improving, priorities have been set and members are showing up.

One reason often cited for the panel’s difficulties is the fact that there hasn’t been a state coordinator of Indian affairs since early 2002. The coordinator, who works out of the governor’s office, is supposed to play a key role in the commission’s activities.

“It’s invaluable for the people of Montana, and it’s something we should continue,” Poole told lawmakers.

“The need for economic development on reservations can’t be stressed enough,” added Juneau, D-Browning.

Evan Barrett, Schweitzer’s chief business development officer, said attracting new businesses to the state, especially in rural areas and reservations, is a cornerstone of the Democratic governor’s economic plans.

He noted that the average annual income for an American Indian family in Montana is $22,824, while the average income for a non-Indian family is $33,000 a year. That disparity, he said, must change.

Despite the controversy, the bill was passed to the House Appropriations Committee, where funding issues—including what to do with $120,000 in commission funds left over from the last Legislature—will be worked out.

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